Citizens and officials have started pondering changes to Luzerne County’s home rule government as it settles into its third year, from minor alterations to the extreme of reverting back to the old structure.
State law may allow some tweaking of the charter, but voters can’t revamp the structure until it hits its five-year anniversary in January 2017, an official says.
The five-year moratorium was included in the law to give new government structures time to be implemented and assessed, said Gerald Cross, executive director of the Pennsylvania Economy League that served as a consultant to the county’s home rule charter drafters.
Several court cases have reaffirmed the requirement to honor the five-year restriction.
Legislators wanted to ensure a “testing period for citizens to permit a given type of government a fair chance to be successful before seeking a seemingly more attractive alternative,” according to one court ruling addressing the waiting period.
Home rule supporters have repeatedly stressed complete integration under the new system will take time.
The county’s customized home rule set-up replaced a system in effect more than 150 years, putting 11 elected council members and an appointed manager in charge of decisions previously made by three elected commissioners and several elected row officers.
If citizens or county officials decide they want to explore major changes when the five-year period is up, a new government study commission must be elected to analyze options, the law says.
Study commissions have up to 18 months to decide if change is warranted and, if so, what new government option should be presented to voters for their consideration, the law says.
Cross said he does not believe the law allows any ballot question on forming a study commission before Jan. 1, 2017, which essentially means the 2017 spring primary
The law says voters “may not vote on the question of changing the form of government until five years after the home rule charter or optional plan became effective.”
Chief County Solicitor C. David Pedri said he will review the law to determine if that ban refers to an actual change in government or the question of forming a study commission.
If a study commission can’t convene until after the 2017 primary, any proposed changes would have to wait until an election in 2018 or 2019.
Officials in neighboring Lackawanna County tried to circumvent the study commission requirement with a ballot question on the proposed elimination of four row offices last year, treating the question as a charter amendment.
Lackawanna voters rejected the row officer change, but the state Supreme Court recently concluded the proposed abolishment of row officers constituted a change in government that should have been analyzed by a government study commission elected by voters.
The charter amendment section of the state home rule law may allow room for minor changes before 2017, Cross said.
For example, county officials have discussed changing the charter requirement to complete the county’s annual audit by June 30, saying a deadline several months later would be more feasible.
Some council members also believe a charter ban associated with board and commission appointments is too restrictive and forcing them to reject viable applicants for unpaid seats. The ban says members of county boards and authorities can’t be employed or compensated by any individual or business serving as a contractor to the county or its boards and authorities.
These types of alterations may be permitted as amendments under the law if voters approve the changes because they are more procedural and not attempting to alter the government structure, Cross said.
However, he stressed the county solicitor and possibly a county judge should review any proposed amendments to ensure the changes don’t violate the five-year restriction and rise to a level warranting a government study commission.
“If they want to ask voters to change from an appointed manager to an elected manager or reduce the number of council members, that would definitely be a change in government requiring a government study commission,” Cross said.
Councilman Rick Williams has publicly suggested a council committee start examining suggested charter changes.
“A committee could establish what refinements are needed in the charter and determine if they could be addressed before the five-year period,” Williams said.
Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck has endorsed his proposal, saying an orderly review of changes is warranted.
“There are a whole lot of amendments to the Constitution of the United States too, so we have to figure somewhere along the line details in our charter may need to be changed or clarified to make things better,” McClosky Houck said.
Council Chairman Rick Morelli said he will ask Pedri to present options to council.
“I think it’s important because ideas on changes are starting to come out, and we have to know how we can make changes and when,” said Morelli, who also served on the committee that drafted the county’s charter.